Three years ago, when Avraham Grant was manager of Israel, he attended the African Nations Championship which took place in Tunisia. Israelis cannot travel freely to Tunisia â€“ officially still an enemy country â€“ but Grant received a special visa with the help and fine contacts of the Paris correspondent of Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s best selling daily newspaper.
The deal was quite simple: In return for the newspaper’s assistance, Grant would keep his mouth completely shut until after he landed in Tunis, and Yediot could come up with the scoop of a lifetime â€“ an Israeli national manager welcomed on enemy soil.
And that is exactly how it happened. Moreover, Grant was so determined to keep the secret (and arrangement) between him and Yediot, that he even opted not to tell his employers at the Israel Football Association about his forthcoming controversial trip.
The IFA did not like being presented with this fait accompli one bit, of course. But Grant survived some calls for his head from within. What he did not anticipate was the reaction of the Israeli media: While Yediot celebrated as if their exclusive was Woodward and Bernstein at Watergate – and treated Grant as a saint who could do no wrong – other newspapers and journalists that had been snubbed, reacted as if their father had left them out of his will and fortune.
They crucified Grant, painted him in the most unsavoury colours, and vowed to take revenge wherever and whenever they could. Three years on, and the repercussions of that incident are still apparent, although in a more moderate way, in the Israeli press.
This Grant story is here to break a myth and give an important indication about the manager and coach who has just been appointed Director of Football at Chelsea. On the one hand, Grant is a shrewd man who knows which side of the bread the butter is on, and through charm, fascination, manipulation and exquisite verbal ability and manouevring, befriends the right people at the right time â€“ be they journalists, clerks, bosses or tycoons. In this way, he paves his way to the top despite being a mediocre professional at best.
But on the other hand, it is the Tunisia affair which serves to reject all of these “public relations and nothing else” theories. This is because if Grant was so devious and clever in his wheeling and dealing with the press â€“how come he fell into the Tunis trap and made himself such long-lasting enemies within the most powerful and influential centres of gravity in the Israeli media?
Well, Avraham Grant is neither a saint nor a crook. The 52-year-old Israeli-born coach is first and foremost a self-made man and manager. In spite of not having no playing background, he became youth coach at a senior premier league club, Hapoel Petach Tikva, in 1973 – at the age of 19. By 1978, his team won the Youth Championship, and he was appointed coach of the senior team â€“ the youngest ever in the Israeli top division.
Grant is a freak of football tactics, systems, developments, history and versatility. He spends months and years studying training methods, trends, phoenomena and players all over the globe. He is certainly a charmer and a shmoozer â€“ combining wit and Israeli (or Jewish) chutzpah. But he is not a charlatan. Behind each and every of his so-called (by his objectors) “self-promotion stunts”, stands firmly a footballing man with a deep knowledge and experience, owl eyes and sharp instincts.
Those were some of the traits which helped Grant in his campaigns with Maccabi Haifa â€“ two League titles and one League Cup â€“ and Maccabi Tel Aviv (two League titles), and convinced the Israeli FA to appoint him, at the age of 46, as the youngest-ever national manager. During his term, Grant failed miserably in the qualifying campaign for Euro 2004, but brought Israel within a whisker of the play-off for the 2006 World Cup. Under his guidance, Israel completed the qualifying group undefeated against the likes of France (World Cup finalists), Ireland and Switzerland – and only one point from second place.
But even such achievements by a very mediocre and raw Israeli side did not win Grant too many new friends. Sheer jealousy â€“ turned into hatred â€“ by his colleagues, and the usual sneering from critics who always behave as if the sky is the limit for Israel, meant that instead of proper acclaim and picking up the fruits of his work, Grant was dubbed “lucky”. So much so that a unique Hebrew phrase was invented: Hatachat shel Avram â€“ “Avram’s a**e (bottom, buttocks, behind)” â€“ implying that chance and luck lead him through thick and thin.
But this is not the Grant that Roman Abramovich met. It may well be true that the Israeli’s prestigious appointment at Stamford Bridge was a result of the way Grant managed to impress the Russian tycoon and became a close friend. But Abramovich is no fool. He is not paying anybody almost a million pounds a year for smooth talking or because he is a favourable ally. If he wants to do that , he could have sent Grant to the Caribbean for a season, not risk the stability of his club (Jose Mourinho) with his appointment .
No, Abramovich wanted Grant on board and on the Board, since this astute manager provided him with ample insights, examples, plans and ideas. He now wishes to give him the chance to implement them. Grant may have won some of the initial credit with some help from his verbal diplomatics and acrobatics. But this will not be enough.
Now he will have to prove his worth, and be judged on his contributions and performance. My feeling is that Chelsea have got themselves an intelligent, sophisticated, smart, ambitious, hard-working professional, and that many Israelis will have to swallow their words and eat their hats.